This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Conscription, Дедовщина, and things

We’ve always had the slavering chicken hawks who would love our army to "crush Pakistan/ the opposition/ whoever else the target of their latest ire is (for a while in 2004 that target was the Holders Of The Black Banner, the Iraqi resistance group which took some Indian truck driver mercenaries hostage). These are also the people who hailed APJ Abdul Kalam’s suggestion of compulsory military service for young people as a means of installing discipline and national integration. Lovely sentiments – only, those very same people are the ones who would never, ever, in their wildest dreams, even consider volunteering for service themselves or allowing any of their relatives to be called up.
It’s their job to make jingoistic statements – the actual fighting and dying is always someone else’s job. (The situation is the same in the US - almost none of the most hawkish Bushies have any family members in the services.)
And if ever, by any mischance, the government took the step of making military service in any form mandatory, you can be sure these selfsame people would do anything – pay bribes, falsify records, do whatever it took – to get exemption for themselves or their wards. Everywhere those drafted are those who are too poor to pay or wangle their way out of uniform. And we all know how "honest " India, and the Indian Army, is. Conscription would be greeted with shouts of joy by those who would make money out of getting people out of it.
I remember the time I was in dental college, in 1990, when the Kashmir mess had just begun. The assorted morons in the college all signed pledges in blood and sent them to the then Prime Minister, VP Singh, promising to lay down their lives in the cause of keeping Kashmir Indian. Did any of them actually join the army and fight? Are you crazy?
Apart from this basic problem, just how would India go about clothing, feeding, arming and training that gigantic and unwieldy an intake of soldiery every year? Is it even feasible?
A good idea of the merits and otherwise of conscription would be gained from talking a look at conscription in action – so let’s look at the Russian Army.
In St Petersburg I saw many conscripts like the three in the photo on this page. I was also told (by Tanya) that young Russians now consider military service the equivalent of prison, which I found a remarkably sad statement, given that it was Russian conscripts who saved France in 1914 by drawing German troops from the Western Front in World War One and saved the world from Nazism in World War II. But as I read and researched more, I came to accept the truth behind her statement.
Russians are supposed to be called up on their eighteenth birthday (unless they are on student deferments) and all medically and physically fit Russian males between the ages of 18 and 27 are supposed to do two years of military service (if picked for the army) or three years (if picked for the navy). The system has been in force for many decades. During Soviet times everyone eligible, practically speaking, served – the percentage of draft eligible males serving was about 80.
Today, according to the Russian Army’s own figures, that percentage is about 9%. The rest buy or bribe their way out. Why?
The reasons can be broken down to basically two.
The first is lack of funds. This has led to awful housing, food shortages, skimped training (the average Russian officer receives only a fraction of the training he received during Soviet times, and like the Indian Army the Russians rely excessively heavily on the officer corps for leadership in battle rather than on a professional NCO backbone like the Western armies) and is directly responsible for the second reason, which is:
Дедовщина (Dedovshchina, meaning "rule by grandfathers"). This was an old tradition in the Russian armies since Tsarist times. The "grandfathers" are soldiers in their second year of military service, who would lord it over the fresh intake in a mix of moderate bullying and "initiation rites" similar to ragging in Indian universities.
According to all sources I have been able to access, the brutality of this practice has increased tremendously since Soviet days (when it was really not much more than a rite of passage) to the extent where it has become perhaps the single greatest problem facing the armed forces, with up to perhaps 1000 deaths of conscripts per year due to torture at the hands of their seniors, due to beatings, starvation, freezing, and - in one celebrated case this January - the amputation of a soldier's legs and genitals after torture caused gangrene. Fresh soldiers are often used as slaves by their seniors, handing over their pay, doing their chores, going out to  beg for food and money (this may have stopped now that the Russian economy is resurgent), ending up at the end of sadistic violence even then and getting no more than an hour of sleep a night. (I must emphasise that I do not have current reports - things may have changed for the better.) The fund crisis after the collapse of the USSR and the utter incompetence of the venal Yeltsin regime (so beloved of the US) made soldiers beg in order to survive; even when things improved, the past necessity dovetailed with the old tradition of bullying to make a lethal cocktail. When the first year draft reaches the second year, it itself takes part in this, simply out of revenge. That impulse will be familiar to anyone who has passed through hazing in an Indian technical university.
In the meantime, the officers are either absent or unwilling or unable to interfere. As one junior officer said, the soldiers who made up the current intake were school dropouts, drug addicts, and the like, ending plaintively, "I have no levers. How can I control these soldiers? They should be put in prison, not called up to serve in the army. They are basically criminals."
Dedovschina of course causes massive morale problems, and is the most serious cause of dodging conscription in Russia, where many ideologically motivated individuals would otherwise still want to serve. It also sharply reduces the effectiveness of the army, evident in the catastrophic defeat of the Russian Army in the First Chechen War. When the Russians returned to battle with volunteer troops in the Second Chechen War, they won a relatively easy victory.
The Russians are aware of the problem, but plans aimed at producing an all volunteer army are in abeyance (perhaps due to the wishes of senior officers to use conscripts as easily available unpaid labour). I have read that plans exist to reduce the term of conscription to one year from 2008, which by eliminating the "grandfathers" would automatically eliminate dedovshchina.  I however don't know if these plans would be implemented. Even then, this would not eliminate the other problems - shortage of money, housing, training, and a lack of a professional non-commissioned officer corps. Many of these problems are endemic in the Indian Army as well, and the Indian Army is a volunteer force.
There is no reason to assume that the fate of a conscript Indian Army would be any different.

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